Well, OK, I guess it depends what you’re choosing between.
Life or death? For most people the answer to that one is pretty obvious, at least for a good span of years and until a satisfactory conclusion seems to have been reached. Which might be at, say, 90 – though I’ll happily take longer if I’m still in decent physical and mental shape.
Red or green jelly-baby? Neither for me, thanks, but if you like them, does it matter which?
Between those two extremes lies a massive range of choices we’re all expected to be making all the time.
What are you going to study at university? It didn’t occur to me until I was already there that I could have chosen not to go to uni at all. And if that assumption was relatively uncommon back in the 1970s, it’s one most teenagers nowadays seem to face.
Where do you want to live, what sort of job do you want, what kind of holiday? Most of us, depending on circumstances, generally have some degree of choice in such things. And so we should, perhaps. Up to a point.
I was reasonably happy to choose my camera and my car, though the available choice in both is far wider than it needs to be.
When it comes to choosing a computer, the varieties and variations you have to choose between are enough to bring on a kind of brain-freeze.
And if I ever enter a supermarket (never through choice), I’m put in mind of a line from Barbara Kingsolver’s brilliant novel The Poisonwood Bible. “But, Aunt Adah, how can there be so many kinds of things a person doesn’t really need?”
The range of choice between near-identical commodities feels like a form of mental illness. What breakfast cereal do you want? None of them, thanks, I’ll bake my own bread for toast, just get me out of here.
I think it was in that dismal decade the 1980s that we began to be force-fed the idea that choice was always a good thing. Tony Blair and his cronies took the idea and ran with it, as they did most Thatcherite bad ideas.
Most people under about 45 have probably never even doubted the choice mantra. They won’t remember a time when there were no organisations called Offthis and Ofthat to ensure competition between rival providers of what the state used to provide.
To ensure that the poor bewildered citizen had a choice. As if they wanted one.
What hospital do you want to go to? I don’t care – I just want to get there quickly and have the best possible treatment when I do.
What school will you send your children to? I’d just like the local one to be good, thanks, and not have to make that choice.
I’d certainly rather children weren’t being bussed from one town to another, while others are making the same journey in the opposite direction. I’m glad my daughter can walk to school, and that many of her friends are within walking distance too. It’s a huge advantage that I never had beyond the age of 11 – not because there was a great choice in schooling back then, but because my parents chose to live in a village, not a town.
It amuses me when I get to London and the disembodied voice of the train conductor thanks me for travelling with Greater Anglia – as if there were any other choice from here. And no, I’m not suggesting different companies should run parallel tracks.
I’m not advocating an even greater network of pipes and cables, either.
Who do you want to buy electricity from? As if there was more than one mains supply in the street outside your home. Your gas, your water, your phone connection?
They never stop telling us to exercise our right of choice. To switch. But of course most people never do. Who really wants to spend hours every year or so trying to compare?
As it happens, the choice between energy suppliers is one I do make. I choose to buy from a company that invests only in renewables, not fossil or nuclear power. But the comparison we are constantly urged to make is based on price-tag alone.
Which is not surprising. To the fetishists of choice, Money is the One True God.
And money is the reason, too, why you can spend so much of your life flicking through TV menus trying to choose between hundreds of channels, nearly all of them showing nothing but rubbish. And advertising.
There is another way, too, in which freedom of choice isn’t quite as desirable as it’s cracked up to be. It applies to TV, and it applies in spades to the internet. And it was well described by that justly popular scientist Brian Cox in a recent interview in the Irish Times.
“Choice implies ghettoisation to some extent,” he said. “So what we’re seeing is these echo chambers where people only choose to listen to people who agree with them.”
These echo chambers amplify so-called populism of the kind that led to Brexit and Trump. While at the same time they give Labour supporters of Jeremy Corbyn the illusion that he can be the next prime minister. If it is an illusion – and I’m afraid all recent evidence from outside the echo chamber suggests it is.
The national press has always had this kind of effect, though it seems to be getting worse. You know roughly how a regular Daily Mail reader will think – if you can call it thinking – and it won’t be the same way a Guardian reader does.
Or, probably, a reader of this blog. Which is one advantage of regional papers, like the one most of the words above made their first appearance in. Because they are chosen by geography, not politics, their readers have a chance of meeting opinions they don’t already hold. Like mine, perhaps.